All about being Jewish and Maltese
Aline P’Nina Tayar: Island of Dreams. Ondina Press. 2012. 272pp.
Aline P’nina Tayar’s new novel revolves round a Jewish-Maltese family mainly during the 1970s and 1980s. The main characters are three first cousins: Vanna, Claire and Ellie. Vanna is a traditional Jewish matriarch who has borne her husband Ephraim a bevy of children and is the only one to have migrated to Israel.
She is temporarily back in Malta where she is planning to take away two aged aunts to an old people’s home in Israel and is urging Ellie and Claire to come over to help her.
Ellie has a Maltese-Christian mother, so she is technically not Jewish. Her father, a medical doctor, and Claire’s father, Alberto, also a medico, are on opposite sides when the fierce conflict bursts out between Mintoff’s Government and the Medical union in the late 1970s.
Alberto, loyal to his union, is on strike and one day his wife is killed at home by a parcel bomb. He and Claire, who still has nightmares over her mother’s death, leave Malta. Claire trains to be a translator/interpreter, marries a handsome Frenchman but soon loses him. She becomes bitter about men and about Malta, where she lost her mother so cruelly.
Her cousin Ellie too goes abroad and ends up getting married in Australia. She is an ardent environmentalist and a stout defender of the underdog and travels all over the world to fight her battles. For her, as for Claire, Malta, where she was born, has lost all importance, but it is not because she hates it but because she considers herself as belonging to no country.
The author brings the three women vividly to life. They stand for three main types of contemporary Jews: Vanna is and feels Jewish to her very core, and for her, the family and its well-being stand above anything else. The fact that she was born in Malta is of little importance to her: Israel is her only mother-country. Ellie and Claire, on the other hand, have made their lives in other countries and, like many other Jews, have made a success of their careers.
For both of them, Catholic Malta is a country where, as Jews, they were regarded as aliens. To this, there are the added sorrows caused by their doctor fathers’ involvement in the struggle with Mintoff.
For this reason, they are reluctant to accept Vanna’s appeal for them to lend her a hand in Malta, and, when they accept, both have hidden agendas.
Ellie wants to expose environmental abuses in Malta’s fish farming and the shabby treatment of illegal immigrants, while Claire wishes to look closely at contemporary accounts of her mother’s murder.
The novel, a number of chapters of which are narrated in the first person by the key character Claire, develops through flashbacks and accounts of the three women’s contemporary doings. After having been spat upon by a woman, Claire is first horrified but then realises she can now provide a reason for the sending of the fatal letter bomb.
She and Ellie stop Vanna at the last moment as she tries to take one of the aunts off to Israel, and now Claire has discovered that looking lovingly after her old relatives is a much more fulfilling task than interpreting in Brussels.
So, with Vanna back in Israel and Ellie deported by the Malta police, she has become the custodian of the old women and resolves she will, and can, combine this with a reduced programme of interpreting and translating. Claire has now combined being Jewish with being also Maltese.
Readers of Tayar’s very readable memoir of her family How Shall We Sing? (Picador, 2000) will see the germs of the present novel in the earlier book. Both books are imbued with a love of family and emphasise the importance of deeply felt relationships.
In both books, the writing is vivid, but in the present one it has a new richness, a striking use of imagery. This, together with the skilful story-telling and the psychological depth, makes it a novel to be read and enjoyed.